Detroit: Belle Isle Clubbing…..

17 Feb

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It’s official, on February 10 historic Belle Isle became Michigan’s 102nd State Park. The DNR will now manage the island, the state will work with the Belle Isle Conservancy and the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee in decision-making and upcoming projects. I find it very exciting! The DNR has already begun removing felled and hazardous trees, a shelter has been re-roofed and several picnic tables refurbished. In the next 6 months we should see restoration and reopening of restrooms, clearing of debris on trails, expansion of picnic areas, new signage and lighting, this is only the beginning….YES!

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Today is Shiver On The River, all of the buildings on the island are open to the public, tours are being given at The Detroit Yacht Club. The DYC is one of the oldest and most prestigious private clubs in North America, located on an 11 acre private island in the Detroit River, the 96,000 sq ft Mediterranean-style building was designed by George Mason (Masonic Temple, Gem Theatre, Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island). The DYC was founded in 1868, this building is their fifth clubhouse, it was dedicated in 1923, the same year the concrete McArthur bridge opened, connecting the island to the city. C’mon let’s have a look!

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A long red carpet leads us to the front entrance, the building is lovely, custom-made revolving doors lead us to the first floor. We are greeted by our tour guide then head up the staircase with its gorgeous banister in the main lobby. In front of us windows overlook the Detroit River, floral carpet leads in all directions, Pewabic Tile medallions are placed high along the walls, a nautical theme is carried out throughout the building. First stop, the Trophy Room, the ornate fireplace takes center stage here, it was hand-carved in place, up close I spy a boat, anchor and rope among the carvings. Above it a painting maps out the private island’s place in the river. Trophy cases are filled with large silver cups, photos and memorabilia. Plaster walls are textured, common for the time period, wall sconces and chandelier are original. We are led to Peacock Alley, named after Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria where society ladies gathered for tea, this stretch of hallway oozes elegance. The Pewabic tile floor gleams, chandeliers hang by thin chains in a line, golden leaves and roses, they are delicate, feminine, and formerly inhabited Rose Terrace. Paintings line the wall, at one time this area was called the DYC Art Gallery. 

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The indoor swimming pool is gorgeous, Olympic size, every square inch is covered in Pewabic Tile. Mary Chase Perry Stratton was a club member and agreed to provide all of the tile when the club was built; she retained control of all design and placement of tile within the building. Huge windows bring the outdoors in, the water sparkles in the light, colored tiles create an illusion of lanes across the floor of the pool. Walls are tiled half way up, a border of rectangular wave tile surrounds the room, individual hand painted tiles add personality; swans, fish and water scenes. The room is warm, chaise lounges linger pool-side, for a moment I forget it is February. 

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The Ballroom is the largest room in the clubhouse, 3-stories high with a spectacular wood beam ceiling, it is enchanting. I feel like I have wandered into a castle in a far-away land; staff members are busy setting up for what could only be a Fairy Tale wedding. The room is expansive; a gentleman sits at the baby grand piano, music quietly fills the air. The fireplace is enormous, it too was carved in place, the sailboat above a reminder of our proximity to the water. Circular chandeliers softly light the room and reflect off the polished wood floor, my mouth is agape as I take it all in, Kris is engrossed in picture-taking. Reluctantly, we move on to the Library, it is just one beautiful room after another, wood-paneled walls, built-in bookshelves and cozy seating areas complete with table lamps invite visitors to curl up with a good book. Passing through the bar area we are told it was originally a porch, a portrait of Gar Wood at age 70 hangs on the wall. The dining room is exquisite; detailed plaster work and terrazzo floors, the room was recently restored. A splendid fountain was discovered behind one of the walls during renovations, today it is out in the open for all to see. Bronze statues rest on tables in the lobby of the dining room, donated by Col. A Victory Seymor MD, he was a club member and surgeon.

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At one time the Board Room and Billiard room were located on the third floor, the space was converted to a meeting room in 1960, the highlight of the room is the doors that open up to the spectator balcony which overlooks the Ballroom. Here we get up close to the ornate, well-crafted, hand-painted beams we saw from the Ballroom floor, they are stunning. Boarding the elevator (added in 1960) we take it down to the first level where locker rooms, fitness center and Binnacle are located. We wander down a long hall, photos of past Commodores in custom frames cover the walls. Flags from other Yacht Clubs where members have visited wrap around the top of the bar, pictures of club history and historical boats hang on the Grill’s walls. FYI: the private island the DYC is built on was man-made…at that time Detroit was in the process of building skyscrapers downtown, the dirt was removed, then taken over to Belle Isle to create the island the clubhouse rests on today. Our tour guide was a former Commodore, he was filled with interesting stories and information that really made the history of the building come alive!

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Time to grab some lunch; a fundraiser for the Belle Isle Conservancy called “Hot Soup” is being held at the Flynn Pavilion; Kris drank hot chocolate here when he was a lad, I have never been inside the building, we are curious to check it out. Built in 1949, this single story, stone facade building is often credited to Eero Saarinen, in fact, the actual architect is J Robert F Swanson. A one time partner of Eliel and Eero Saarinen, he left the firm and started Swanson Associates in 1947. His wife Pipsan Saarinen (you got it, daughter and sister of the previously mentioned Eliel and Eero) oversaw the interior designs. Built to provide shelter and amenities for Summer and Winter activities, the building is a wonderful example of Mid Century Modern Design.

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Inside we are awestruck by the knotty pine plank ceiling and beams, the back wall is a grayish-colored stone that surrounds a wood fireplace surround, it’s like we’ve wandered into some cool Modern lodge somewhere up north! Horizontal bands of casement windows line the length of each wall, one side overlooks the Lake Takoma Lagoon, the other the park itself, we are stunned by what good condition everything is in. To the left big pots of soup, trays of Avalon Bread and slices of Dangerously Delicious Pies beckon to us, Stella Cafe is providing the hot chocolate. Each of us has a bowl of vegetarian chili, bread and a white chocolate Macadamia cookie, everything is delicious! What a treat the day has been, there is no end to the amazing things that can be found right here in Detroit.

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